1979 aerial

Lord Overpass: A 150 Year History

Information packets uploaded by the Friday before Lowell City Council meetings include reports the city council requests, petitions for permits only the council can grant, and the minutes of the previous meeting. They can be found by visiting http://agenda-suite.com:8080/agenda/cityoflowell/Meeting.html and clicking on the book icon to the right of the appropriate meeting. The public has an opportunity before the meeting to request to speak in favor or against any motion a City Councilor makes, and City Councilors welcome emails about upcoming agenda items. This is one of a semi-regular series of posts about the information in those packets and upcoming City Council motions.

There’s a few interesting items the City Council will discuss today, including a bond order to repair the Lower Locks and Leo Roy parking garages; a report on the Lowell Police Department’s training expenses and revenue with news that they plan to incorporate Tasers and cultural competency trainings; a motion about keeping communication between UMass Lowell, a dorm developer, and the City open; and a vote endorsing the 2013-2018 Open Space and Recreation Plan.

There’s also a public petition to address the City Council regarding firearm licenses in Lowell. I have not researched the issue, but I learned the petitioner is the Director at Large of the Gun Owner’s Action League.

However, this post will focus on the sole item the Transportation Subcommittee is covering starting at 5:30 pm: “Discussion of Lord Overpass Improvements.” Discussion of transportation improvements seems timely, as a man died last weekend from injuries he sustained after being struck by a car elsewhere in Lowell. It’s also part of an ongoing conversation; Aurora and I described the “Lord Overpass Reconstruction Project” a few weeks ago. The project involves not only the overpass, but improvements to several intersections along Thorndike from the train station all the way to an extension of Jackson Street to meet Fletcher at Dutton. The improvements were called for and developed in public sessions related to the Hamilton Canal District.

We also talked about several issues we have heard brought up: as currently described, the project does not improve Dutton Street’s walkability; the project has no separated bicycle paths; the idea for a pedestrian bridge was scrapped; and in a larger sense, the project doesn’t touch upon the importance of the area as a crossroads of Lowell, where many attractions would be less than a five-minute walk away if pedestrian accommodations were in place. However, the conclusions Aurora and I reached were clear. There are no easy answers, and those answers are limited by available funding.

Today, Aurora and I thought it would be illuminating and fun to go over the history of the Overpass and the streets it connects.

1825 map with Thorndike and Dutton highlighted

1825 basemap from UML Digital Map Collection.

Between 1821 and 1825, the first large-scale mills were built in Lowell. Dutton Street was built along the new Merrimack Canal and Thorndike Street was built to connect this intersection with a west-east highway toward Chelmsford at what is now Gallagher Square, previously Davis Square. Even then, it served as an important connection between highways leading to other cities and the downtown. Its importance only grew as the Boston and Lowell railroad was constructed soon after, crossing the canals at the same point as Thorndike.

1936 atlas pages surrounding future Lord Overpass

This map was stitched together with pages from the 1936 Franklin Survey Company Atlas at UML Digital Map Collection.

By the mid-1930s, the railroad had been extended to Nashua and the roads looked largely like they would for the next hundred years. This image is from the 1936 atlas, the last atlas to be made before the Lowell Connector and Lord Overpass were built. Here’s some points of interest:

  • Thorndike, which had been designated Route 3, ran where the east ramp is now, lined with commercial buildings on its east side.
  • The area that is taken up by the Lord Overpass used to be a train station and the Hotel Merrimack.
  • North of Pawtucket Canal, Dutton Street curved westward and made a 5-way intersection with Western, Thorndike, and Fletcher.
  • Western Avenue used to continue over the railroad tracks to connect what is now Western Ave Studios with Thorndike Street.
  • Middlesex crossed the railroad tracks at-grade, but Chelmsford Street bridged over them as it does today.
  • Jackson Street never met Thorndike, but a smaller “West Jackson Street” did.
Image: richardhowe.com

Image: richardhowe.com, original source unknown. Downtown is to the left of the image, and what is now Gallagher Terminal is to the right. The leftmost north-south street is Middlesex, and the rightmost is Appleton/Chelmsford.

This photo from the 1930s[1] shows how steep the section of Thorndike between Middlesex and Appleton/Chelmsford was, one of the issues mitigated by the Lord Overpass. At the time, the Appleton/Chelmsford/Thondike intersection was called “Crotty Circle,” with a monument to World War I soldier George Crotty added to the center in 1937.

South Common

South Common Image: Steve Conant, via richardhowe.com. What is now Gallagher Terminal is across Thorndike from the South Common.

This photo was taken a little later, after many of the buildings along Thorndike, including the Hotel Merrimack, were demolished.

In the 1950s, a strategy of modernizing Lowell was adopted. Early in the 1960s, the Lord Overpass was constructed to accommodate traffic loads that were projected into the 1980s, a sister project of the larger I-495 and Lowell Connector project. The ultimate goal of city planners was to connect the Lowell Connector to Father Morissette Boulevard in a great loop around downtown, surround downtown with parking, and create a pedestrian mall in the center. Other initiatives razed old industrial or residential buildings to provide developable, accessible lots to attract electronics and plastics manufacturing.[2]

The neighborhood between Chelmsford Street and the railroad was demolished for that reason, and most of that site today is occupied by MACOM, an electronics manufacturer.

1979 aerial

1979 image: Lowell National Historic Park, via Massachusetts Digital Commonwealth. Downtown is to the left of image, and Gallagher Terminal is in upper-right corner.

This 1979 image shows the overpass mostly as it is today, with one difference: the Sampson Connector had not yet been built. Planned in the 1970s and built in the 80s, the Sampson Connector fused together Thorndike and Dutton to ease traffic going toward downtown, making what was a practically five-way intersection into a “T” where the majority of traffic would not need to stop and turn. I am told the Sampson Connector project also removed Dutton Street’s parking lanes to create a four-lane thoroughfare. I also believe this project terminated Western Avenue at the railroad tracks, creating a lot that would become Dunkin’ Donuts.

For better or for worse, all of these projects were to ease automobile traffic and promote economic development that required automobile access. A lot could be—and has been—written about what these projects achieved and where they fell short. I feel that they tried to compete with suburbs on their terms and had only mixed success promoting development because there’s always more space for roads and cheap land in suburbs than in the city. In addition, making it easier to drive into the center of Lowell also made it easier to drive right through Lowell, facilitating suburban auto-oriented development. It’s easy to forget, however, that it might have felt as if these projects were more successful when Wang Laboratories was in town.

I’m not sure how the history of the roads and infrastructure projects could help us think about the Lord Overpass today. Missing in this examination are the traffic counts and stated goals for each of the projects. Additionally, an analysis may include the economic and property tax impact of losing prime parcels compared to improved economic performance elsewhere. Regardless, it does show that major infrastructure projects are “sticky.” Roads remained the same way for a hundred years, and we still drive on projects designed sixty years ago. Smaller projects such as road diets, one-way conversions, and bike lanes are easier to reverse if they don’t work out, but large projects stay with us a very long time.


[1] The photo is undated, but must be from before 1937, because it contains the monument, but from after the early 1930s when trolley lines were removed from Middlesex and Appleton Streets.

[2] I haven’t read Mehmed Ali’s University of Connecticut Dissertation yet, but I found several sources that cite it when recreating the urban renewal timeline.


5 thoughts on “Lord Overpass: A 150 Year History

  1. Chris, this was an excellent write-up; thank you.

    I’m concerned that the last proposal made no significant upgrades for bike and pedestrian access; as said this has become the de-facto crossroads of Lowell.

    I’ve been staring at the maps for hours trying to think of a solution that meets these requirements:

    * Meets the existing requirement of better access to JAM
    * Improves at-grade crossings to/from the train station
    * Improves bike accessibility
    * Does not futher impede traffic flow
    * Is inexpensive

    Bottom-line is that I could not think of anything that greatly improves the situation while also being inexpensive (no easily apparent low-lying fruit).

    What might be the best approach is to specifically allocate a slice of the pie for pedestrian upgrades, request proposals and choose the least-bad one. The key issue appears to be that no part of the pie is currently for pedestrians and bikes.

    FWIW, I have two relatively expensive proposals that would solve most of the issues:

    1) Move the train station on top of the Lord Overpass
    -keep train parking, drop-off loop and bus access where is is
    -move the pedestrian part and the platform into the Lord overpass (over Thorndike and between
    Middlesex and 110); quick sketch:


    This makes the station equally accessible pedestrian-wise from all sides, greatly simplifies trolley access and puts the station at-grade with the secondary roads. Ironically it also puts the train station back where it used to be.

    2) Bury Thorndike street from the Lowell Connector to the Sampson Connector.

  2. Pingback: RichardHowe.com | Transportation Subcommittee Meeting: Feb 24, 2015

  3. Chris and Aurora! I love your blog! We would love to have you come to Lowell Community Charter Public School for a visit one day! Is there a number or email that I can use to set that up if you are interested?

    Thanks for your work on your blog!


    C. Trent Ramsey, Director of Development & Communications
    Lowell Community Charter Public School
    206 Jackson Street + Lowell, Massachusetts 01852
    978-323-0800 x 234 + Cell: 781-558-4509
    Follow us on Facebook: facebook/lccps or Twitter @lowellcomchrtr

  4. Chris and Aurora,

    Thank you very much for this piece. I have poured over the maps at UML and tried to figure out previous configurations of the Lord Overpass. What threw me was the placement of the train station. I agree with your general assessment and problems with this 1960s-1980s fiasco. I believe that it will be a long road to righting the wrongs of that era, down even to the construction of the Dunkin’ Donuts.

    It seems to me that some simple solutions can be taken to ameliorate the situation, like narrowing the lanes on Thorndike, Dutton, and Arcand Dr. This should free up space for parking, trees or bike lanes.

    At the subcommittee meeting, the VHB representative suggested removing the center walkways from the overpass. My own first impression is that this is a bad idea, from my own pedestrian perspective. I have used the center at times. When I walking, I like to have as many options open to me when crossing busy streets/intersections. When it comes to the Berlin Wall of Lowell (to use Dick Howe’s term) there are very few options for pedestrians. I may use the center section of the overpass, but I almost never cross Dutton/east on-ramp at Fletcher, although I have done so.

    When I saw the VHB plan for the Jackson Street extension and the new Lord Overpass on-ramp to Dutton, it looked as if they had just taken the plans from the Hamilton Canal website. I asked the representative from VHB, the lady in charge of the project whose name escapes me, how many lanes one would need to cross to go from the DCAM site to get over to the Dunkin’ Donuts. She said only four. I was unable to understand this from looking at their map.

    This conversation tells me how important it is for pedestrians/bikers or anyone interested in sane traffic patters needs to voice their views and attend as many public meetings as possible. This project is far too important to all Lowellians.

    Gratias vobis muneri Lowellensium omnium! Thank you for your service to all Lowellians.

  5. Pingback: RichardHowe.com | Lowell Week in Review: March 1, 2015

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